After swearing-in as chief minister of West Bengal for the third time, Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee has become one of the most successful Congress leaders who quit the party and flourished by creating their own political fiefdoms. Surviving and thriving after walking out of Congress was once treated as a tough, if not impossible, task. Stalwarts such as Jagjivan Ram, Bahuguna, Nandini Satpathy, Bhajan Lal, AK Antony, Madhavrao Scindia, VC Shukla, Arjun Singh, ND Tiwari, K Karuankaran, Ambika Soni, Ajit Jogi, Mallikarjun Kharge, to name a few, either faded into oblivion or returned as ‘loyal soldiers’ of the ‘durbar’.
The Congress nostalgia chambers still feed the stale folklore of how Rajiv Gandhi ‘discovered a young Mamata Banerjee’. Gandhi has Congress chief just cleared her candidature proposed by then Bengal leaders Pranab Mukherjee and Subrata Mukherjee as part of a search for a young Congress candidate, who soon became a giant-killer when she defeated Somnath Chatterjee in 1984 LS polls. But the lore goes on how Sonia Gandhi in 1997 ‘meaningfully stopped’ her cavalcade on her way to AICC session venue next to Kolkata’s Brigade Parade Ground to ‘silently bless’ Banerjee when she was staging her open rebellion against Sitaram Kesripresided AICC session at the nearby Netaji Stadium.
Yet, for all the tales of Banerjee’s emotional link and obligation to the Gandhi family, the fact is that the Trinamool chief despite having to struggle for almost 15 years for success never thought of returning to the parent party after Sonia Gandhi took over the leadership. After relishing the freedom of leadership, Banerjee remained close to another leader, the perennially autonomous Sharad Pawar.
After her momentous victory against BJP and the Modi regime, Banerjee not only has emerged as the most powerful anti-BJP leader but also arguably India’s most powerful woman leader. Irrespective of whether the Gandhis can digest it, this is set to redraw the larger equations in the national Opposition politics. While many think Pawar and Banerjee have now become the most influential ‘Congress leaders’ outside the party who can network for a national platform of regional parties against BJP, the two CMs of bifurcated Andhra Pradesh, KCR and Jagan Mohan Reddy, too are ex-Congressmen and part of the Pawar-Banerjee network So is Puducherry’s new CM N Rangasamy.
Unlike the ‘early breakaway Congress persons’ such as Charan Singh, Devi Lal and Biju Patnaik who became decorated leaders of anti-Congress opposition politics, not many established Congress leaders could become CMs and independent powerhouses outside the Congress later on, as done by Pawar, Banerjee, KCR, Jagan Mohan Reddy and Rangasamy. Others who could do it briefly included Bansi Lal and the Muftis, besides Bhajan Lal of ‘ayaram, gaya-ram’ fame.
The seemingly unabated decline of the Congress would all the more make the high command worry about the increasing ‘independent success stories’ of estranged Congress leaders as they could kindle desire among remaining regional Congress leaders with a base and ambition. No wonder, one particular demand by the 23 Congress change seekers – that the leadership may initiate ‘coming together of all former Congress persons on one platform – made the fidgeting high command particular smell a rat.
It is interesting to note that in a country that produced six Congress PMs, there have been an equal number of ex-Congressmen who became PMs: Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, VP Singh, Chandrashekhar, Deve Gowda and IK Gujaral. Hence, the increasing buzz about some successful ex-Congress leaders with prime ministerial ambitions seeking to float an anti-BJP national platform with regional flavour is bound to generate a new dimension not only in Opposition politics but also within Congress.